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P R A I S E F O R B E AT B Y B E AT

“Todd Klick’s brilliance shines through his masterfully con- “Beat by Beat takes screenplay story structure down to its
ceived and beautifully executed Beat by Beat, a must read smallest elemental level, guiding you on a minute-by-­minute
for screenwriters whether you’re a total novice or an Oscar- journey through what makes some of the most popular
winner—this book is a case study in smarts. I’ve never been films resonate so strongly with filmgoers. Klick delivers a
one to suggest that screenwriting (or acting, or wardrobe, book that’s specific enough to get you placing all the right
or set design, etc.) can be ‘learned’ by someone without the moments in exactly the right places, while also being broad
‘born gift’—but in the case of Beat by Beat I suggest this gift enough to allow your creativity to explore and discover.”
can be, and will be beautifully enhanced. Of equal or greater —Tom Farr, writer, teacher, storyteller (whisperproject.net)
value, Beat by Beat will make your screenplay marketable,
bankable, producible—and it won’t take long before they are “Beat by Beat presents a refreshing new take on the age-­
calling you and your work ‘genius.’” old challenge of writing a book that will aid and inspire
—John Philip Dayton, CBS executive producer, director, screenwriters. It is a useful tool for jumpstarting the script-
writer; The Waltons, Eight Is Enough, Matlock, The Ray writing process, but can also be applied as a way of double-­
Bradbury Theatre checking story beats on a script well under way. One of its
key strengths is it can be adapted to most any visual narra-
“When intuition and verve stall, and your story stops ‘writing tive medium from feature films, short films, and television
itself,’ Todd Klick’s Beat by Beat will be your new best friend.” episodes to webisodes and beyond.”
—John L. Geiger, coauthor, Creativity & Copyright —Roy Finch, assistant professor, Chapman University

“There have been other books that have dissected films before, “A beat sheet that covers fundamentals and genres. Todd
but none to the detail of Todd Klick’s Beat by Beat. Discover Klick has uncovered what makes great cinematic storytelling.
the amazing intricacy of film(s) one minute at a time.” A must for anyone in the business to make their film import-
—Matthew Terry, filmmaker, screenwriter, teacher ant and lasting.”
—Dave Watson, editor, Movies Matter
“Screenwriters . . . Beat by Beat is a book you’ll find most (davesaysmoviesmatter.com)
invalu­able in your quest to write the next “Monumental
Movie of the Millennium”! This book is your pass to the head
of the line.”
—Forris Day Jr., reviewer and writer, scaredstiffreviews.com
T O D D K L I C K

Beat by Beat
A Cheat Sheet for Screenwriters
Published by Michael Wiese Productions All rights reserved. No part of this book may be repro- The author acknowledges the copyright owners of the
12400 Ventura Blvd. #1111 duced in any form or by any means without permission following motion pictures from which single frames have
Studio City, CA 91604 in writing from the publisher, except for the inclusion of been used in this book for purposes of commentary, criti-
(818) 379-8799, (818) 986-3408 (Fax) brief quotations in a review. cism, and scholarship under the Fair Use Doctrine.
mw@mwp.com
Skyfall ©2012 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Columbia
www.mwp.com Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Pictures, All Rights Reserved.
Manufactured in the United States
of America Klick, Todd, author. The Avengers ©2012 Marvel Studios, All Rights Reserved.
Beat by beat : a cheat sheet for screenwriters / by Todd The Hangover ©2009 Warner Bros., All Rights Reserved.
Cover design by Johnny Ink. johnnyink.com Klick. A Beautiful Mind ©2001 Universal Pictures, DreamWorks
Interior design by Debbie Berne Studio City, CA : Michael Wiese Productions, 2016. | Pictures, All Rights Reserved.
Copyediting by David Wright Includes filmography.
The Conjuring ©2103 Warner Bros., All Rights Reserved.
LCCN 2015043174 | ISBN 9781615932467
Copyright © 2016 Todd Klick LCSH: Motion picture authorship—Handbooks, manuals, Gone Girl ©2014 20th Century Fox, All Rights Reserved.
etc. Hitchcock quote, page 22, from Hitchcock by Francois
This book was set in Minion Pro and Gotham. LCC PN1996 .K618 2016 | DDC 808.2/3—dc23 Truffaut, 1967, Simon & Schuster.
LC record available at http://lccn.loc.gov/2015043174
To Ray
CONTENTS Foreword 9 15 Whew, That Was Close! 56 38 Positive Reconnect 106
Preface 10 16 The Big Concern 58 39 New Journey Bond 108
Don’t Skip This Part! 11 17 World Upside Down 60 40 Ally’s World 110

Four Things You Need to Know Turning Point 17 63 41 Thorny Rose 112

(Before Reading This Book)­  12 18 Trouble Turn 64 42 Surprise Reveal 114

Frequently Asked Questions 13 19 The Threat 66 43 Surprise Reveal 2 116

1 Minute = 1 Screenplay Page  17 20 Push Back 68 44 New News 118

Top 10 Movie Archetypes 17 21 The Great Effect 70 45 Out of the Ordinary 120

Essential Elements 20 22 Truth Declared 72 Turning Point 45 123


4-Act Structure 22 23 Scary Stuff 74 46 The Revelation 124

Turning Points 24 24 Scary Stuff 2 76 47 The Escort 126

25 Scary Stuff 3 78 48 Needed Knowledge 128

26 The Big Unexpected 80 49 Foreboding Fact 130


AC T 1
27 The Mini-Quest 82 50 The Portent 132
1 Attension! 26 28 Big Quest Prep 84 51 The Engage 134
2 The Build 28 29 Big Quest Prep 2 86 52 Say Uncle 136
3 The Ratchet 30 30 The Need 88 53 The Intimidation 138
4 Another Notch 32 Act 1 Checklist 90 54 The Lightbulb 140
5 Jaw Dropper 34 The Quest 90 55 Sideswipe 142
6 Friend or Fist 36 56 Dark Twist Chat 144
7 Friend or Fist 2 38 57 Difficult Words 146
ACT 2
8 Something Startling Happens 40 58 Vital Event 148
9 The Pursuit 42 31 Distress Signal 92 59 The Deception 150
10 The Discussion 44 32 Anxiety Amp 94 60 The Shocker 152
11 The Warning 46 33 Ominous Oh No 96 Act 2 Checklist 154
Inciting Incident 49 34 Friend Effect 98 The Midpoint 154
12 Harsher Warning 50 35 Bait and Switch 100 Things to Keep in Mind
13 The Submission 52 36 Hide and Seek 102 for Act 3 154
14 Danger Watch 54 37 Over His Head 104
AC T 3 ACT 4 112 Charging Shark 266
61 Plus Minus 156 86 Worry Wound 210 113 The Cage Slam 268
114 Gets the Better 270
62 Flirtin’ with Disaster 158 87 Damage Done 212
115 Bleak Meek 272
63 Ally Attack 160 88 Double Damage Done 214
116 Kick ’Em While They’re
64 Bad Guy Threat 162 89 Red Alert! 216

65 The Resistance 164 90 Rescuing Ally 218


Down 274
117 Reprieve 276
66 Positive Step 166 Turning Point 90 221
118 Hope Might Be Lost 278
67 Hero Effect 168 91 Suffer the Weak 222
119 One Bullet Left 280
68 Ally Aid 170 92 Hugs ’n’ Kisses 224
120 Powder Keg 282
69 Captivating Concern 172 93 Hugs and Kisses 2 226

70 New Journey 174 94 The Aggressor 228


Act 4 Checklist 284
71 Bad to the Bone 176 95 The Separation 230
What if My Screenplay Is
72 Badder to the Bone 178 96 Death and Dying 232
Longer Than 120 Pages? 284
73 Baddest to the Bone 180 97 Taping the Knuckles 234
Sacrificing the Flaw 285
74 Put into Peril 182 98 Kiss or Spit 236

75 Skull and Crossbones 184 99 Kiss or Spit 2 238


That’s a Wrap! 286
Turning Point 75 187 100 Kiss or Spit 3 240
Glossary 287
76 Death Tap 188 101 Deeper Deeper 242
Beat by Beat Timeline 292
77 The Rumble 190 102 The Blow-Up 244
Filmography 294
78 Mystery Mission 192 103 The Blow 246
About the Author 295
79 Mystery Mission 2 194 104 The Upper Hand 248

80 Tick Tick Boom 196 105 The Deceit 250

81 Surprised Hero 198 Turning Point 105 253


82 Surprise-Surprise 200 106 The Dodge 254

83 Gotta Go! 202 107 Good Does Bad 256

84 Gap Subtract 204 108 Sense of Finality 258

85 Bad Guy Boo-Boo 206 109 The Extraordinary 260

Act 3 Checklist 208 110 Strong Statement 262

The Final Quest 208 111 Turn for the Worse 264


FO R E WO R D “I have an idea for your next book,” my publisher, Michael Wiese, said over the phone. We somehow synched our busy sched-
ules and wildly different time zones — he in England, I in Los Angeles. I was deep in the midst of five active writing and film-
making projects and the thought of adding a sixth to the pile was unappealing. But Michael grabbed my attention by saying the
following: “I’d like to do something with your Something Startling Happens story beats; something more streamlined; a kind of
cheat sheet for screenwriters.”
I raised an eyebrow, like Spock does when an idea appeals to him: Hmm, a cheat sheet for screenwriters . . . fascinating.
I loved writing this book! It gave me the opportunity to create the kind of visual screenwriting guide I jonesed for when I
first started penning scripts back in Pennsylvania, but could never find on the shelves. It also gave me the chance to develop
a power-packed pictorial aide that summed up what I had learned from studying over (currently) 400 successful films in my
quest to better myself as a writer. In short, I got to produce my fantasy screenwriting book: a go-to guide that features all the
minute-by-minute storytelling secrets I’ve utilized (and tips I’ve learned from pros) to pen a bestselling book, option scripts,
and sell numerous writing projects for the stage and screen.
It is my hope that this book helps you do the same.

Todd Klick

­— 9 —
P R E FA C E This book features a blockbuster movie from each of the rottentomatoes.com; 3) Earned a minimum worldwide gross
top-selling genres: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, of $300 million. In other words, audiences and critics not only
Horror, and Thriller. The six movies I chose to represent loved these movies, but the films also made stacks of cash for
their genres had to meet three criteria, or what I call “The their happy producers. Two of these films even grossed over
Holy Trinity”: 1) Rated 75% or higher by critics on rotten­- an unbelievable billion dollars. These six movies are:
tomatoes.com; 2) Rated 80% or higher by audiences on

ACTIO N ADVENTUR E COMEDY DR A MA HORROR T HRIL L ER

­— 10 —
DON’T SKIP These next sections explain the secret recipe. If you ignore your overall structure or filling in second act weak spots. Use
T H I S PA R T ! this part and go right into cooking your story, the recipe this book to brainstorm with other writers on how your story
won’t work. Take five minutes to read the next few sections should advance or conclude, or to think up fresh ways to sur-
and the minute-by-minute beats will be fully illuminated. prise the audience that is consistent with the minute beats
The best way to use Beat by Beat depends on what type of and genre. You can also use this book to fill the gaps in your
writer you are. Are you a Stephen King type, or a John Irving existing outlines or treatments.
type? King said his writing process is “like walking through a When it comes to my own process, I hone a 12- to 17-page
desert and all at once, poking up through the hardpan, I see the outline until the story is structurally sound, then when I write
top of a chimney. I know there’s a house down there, and I’m the script I reference the beat descriptions as found in Beat by
pretty sure that I can dig it up if I want.” Without a complete Beat as I enter each page.
idea of where his story is headed, King starts writing the book, When I first applied the minute-by-minute beats, that’s
making the discoveries as he plows forward. John Irving, on when I attracted my first manager and advanced quickly to
the other hand, outlines extensively, knowing the fine details of the Nicholl Fellowship quarterfinals. Soon after I had to hustle
each scene and chapter before he even begins writing his novel. to meet another contest deadline with a new script. I didn’t
Whether you are a King or Irving type of writer, or you have two months to outline like I usually did, so I decided to
approach story from a completely different place altogether, jump right in and “bang it out blind.” Starting at page one with
you can use Beat by Beat as a page-by-page metaphor or only a grabber opening in mind, I wrote like Stephen King —
checklist whenever you’re ready for it, or as an idea booster discovering the story as I went along. As I approached each
if you get stuck. script page, I referenced each beat to keep me on track so I
If you’re an Irving type of writer, you may want to do didn’t waste time. I wrote the script in two weeks (a personal
your research first, develop your extensive outline, write record), and sent it off immediately to the PAGE International
your first draft, then reference this book toward the end to Screenwriting Contest where I made the finals. Since then, I’ve
see if you’re addressing each minute-by-minute guideline. Or optioned and sold numerous scripts. My latest screenplays,
maybe you want to find your story on your own and write a using the beats as my guide, have recently attracted A-list pro-
voluminous 300-page first draft to get it all out of your head. duction companies which have worked on numerous block-
Cool, go do it. That’s fantastic. But eventually you may want buster movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Super 8, and
to visit this book to see if your script addresses the successful Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. I owe all this attention to
minute-by-minute beats that all great films use. the minute-by-minute insights revealed in this book.
When in need, this book can also assist while developing

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FOUR THINGS 1. I want to make something clear: The minute-by-minute story to story. But what’s important to realize is that they
YO U N E E D T O beats you are about to read are not taken from the original are there. These beats should be represented on every page,
K N OW ( B E FO R E screenplays or shooting scripts. They are drawn from far grand or small, or your screenplay may fall short. The reader
READING THIS superior material: The final stories you see on the big screen or audience subconsciously expects these universal patterns.
BOOK) after they were filtered through the studios’ vigorous distill- If you neglect to include them, the audience may feel gypped.
ing process.
3. Try using the minute-by-minute catch phrases. I spent
2. You need to understand that the terms used in this book months paring down the phrases so they are descriptive
(like Main Hero, Ally, Bad Guy, Enemy, Villain, Sidekick) are and precise. The phrases were initially one sentence long,
flexible and interchangeable from page to page, depending on but after using them while wrestling with my own scripts,
what’s happening in the scene. I found myself paraphrasing: “This is Minute 63, I need an
Sometimes the enemy becomes the hero for a page (in Ally Attack.” Or, “This is Minute 77, I gotta have The Rumble.”
The Avengers, Loki becomes the hero for a scene when he These fun phrases get to the point of what needs to happen in
faces the intimidating leader of the Chitauri); or the ally the script — a tremendous time-saver. Writing partners and
becomes the enemy (in Gone Girl, Amy’s ex-boyfriend, Desi I use the catchphrases as shorthand. We even use the phrases
Collings — who saves her when she loses all her money — while developing stories with clients, with other screenwrit-
becomes her enemy). ers, and during pitch meetings. The phrases work for us, and
Sometimes the ally can be an inanimate object (in The they’ll work for you too.
Avengers, a computer named Jarvis is Tony Stark’s ally, reveal-
ing information he needs to know), or the hero’s conscience 4. If you’re fond of using index cards while developing your
can become the bad guy (in The Hangover, Stu’s guilt becomes story, this is a technique you’ll find helpful. After you’ve outlined
his enemy). You must be flexible with these terms from scene your movie, scribble the minute-by-minute catch phrases onto
to scene or the beats won’t work for you. 120 individual index cards, each card representing one minute.
I also use words like explosion, damage, warning, or Then brainstorm on the card original ways you can demon-
threat. Most times an “explosion” will be a literal explosion, strate that minute in your story. For example, jot down as many
or the explosion could be more figurative, like an explosion Friend or Fist moments you can think of on card 6 (Minute 6 or
of emotion . . . A warning can be very dramatic or it can be Page 6 of your screenplay), or write as many Whew, That Was
something said subtly through clenched teeth. The dramatic Close! moments as you can on card 15 (Minute 15). This’ll help
level of these words can change from page to page, too, or you zero in your creativity and force originality.

­— 12 —
F R E Q U E N T LY “What happens if a film is only 85 minutes long? Do the “Sometimes movies are more than 120 minutes long. Do the
ASKED beats you describe get compressed — sometimes two minute-by-minute beats extend beyond the two hours men-
QUESTIONS per page?” tioned in your book?”
Whether the story stops at Minute 94 (like The Hangover), Yes, but since the majority of movies sold and distributed
or 104 (like The Conjuring) or upwards to 120 and beyond are under 120 minutes I trimmed the book to accommodate
(like Skyfall, A Beautiful Mind, and Gone Girl), the minute­- the practical needs of the average working screenwriter and
-by-minute (page-by-page) beats remain steadfastly consis- filmmaker.
tent. The beats are like piano keys that are fixed into place.
But with those fixed keys you can play an endless variety of Do these beats work with different genres?
original rock and roll, jazz, blues, punk, indie, and orches- Yes, which I will demonstrate by using six different genres
tral music, whatever you fancy. The Hangover and Skyfall throughout this book. What’s great about these beats is that
do the exact same minute-by-minute beats up until 94. The it doesn’t matter if you’re writing a thriller, a comedy, horror,
Hangover ends on Minute 94 but Skyfall continues, adher- drama, action, or adventure, or a combination of two or three
ing to the remaining Minute 95 through Minute 120 beats. genres, the underlining minute-by-minute beats are still rep-
Therefore, compressing story beats is unnecessary. resented in all successful movies. It’s the ground floor of what
all movie stories are built upon.
“If every good movie sticks to these minute-by-minute
beats, then why are some movies longer than others?” Is this a formula way of storytelling? Won’t a formula stifle
Movie lengths vary for this reason: The number and com- my creativity?
plexity of characters and subplots change from film to film, The definition of “formula” is: “a conventionalized statement
requiring different lengths to satisfy each unique story arc. expressing some fundamental principle.” Is Beat by Beat a
But whether the film has a handful of subplots or just one, fundamental principle? Absolutely yes. It’s a universal prin-
the writer must still address each minute-by-minute bench- ciple that is common in all successful movie-stories. You’re
mark mentioned in this book to avoid boring the audience welcome to avoid these fundamental principles in your movie
— an audience who inherently expects this underlying story storytelling, but don’t be surprised if agents, managers, studio
rhythm in all the movies they watch. execs, or production companies don’t return your phone calls
or e-mails after you send them your script or independent
movie. In addition to looking for a fresh voice in your work,

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they are subconsciously looking for these universal beats, Will these beats work for short films?
archetypes, themes, arcs, and conflicts addressed in this book Whether your film is five minutes long, twenty minutes long,
when they’re reading your screenplay or viewing your film — or forty-five minutes long, the minute-by-minute beats apply.
it’s a primal storytelling need fashioned over a hundred years You still must satisfy Aristotle’s theory that all stories need a
of industry storytelling. beginning, middle, and an end, but underneath the begin-
If you’re an experimental independent filmmaker who ning-middle-end, no matter what your story’s length, the
is fiercely against anything that whiffs of a set way of doing beats as described in this book remain a universal rhythm for
things, fine, go do your thing. But don’t be shocked when any visual storytelling length.
your audience falls asleep during your screenings, or walks
out altogether. There’s a reason why fundamental principles Can I use these beats when writing television pilots?
— like those found in geometry or physics — keep a plane in Yes, the minute-by-minute beats work whether you’re writ-
the air or prevent a bridge from toppling over: they work. So ing a twenty-two-minute comedy pilot, an hour-long crime
it is with the fundamentals of storytelling. drama, or a two-hour TV movie. The universal story rhythms
Will these fundamental principles stifle your creativity? of Beat by Beat apply whether you’re watching a blockbuster
Quite the opposite! Once you know the fundamental beats, on a giant Cineplex screen or a popular series on a tiny home
they free you to spend your creative time thinking of original television. All visual stories still need Minute 5’s Jaw Dropper,
ways of telling your story each and every minute! For exam- Minute 14’s Danger Watch, or Minute 22’s Truth Declared, etc.
ple, once Picasso mastered the fundamental principles of
color and design, it freed him to go in a completely different How about a webisode? Do the Beat by Beat patterns work
direction visually than all the other painters who preceded for those?
him. But here’s the thing: Even though Picasso’s cubist cre- Yes, whether your webisode is three minutes long or up to
ations looked radically different than anything else the gallery ten minutes long, the opening minute-by-minute beats need
audiences had seen up until that point, each of his successful to be applied — along with Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end
paintings, at their core, still adhered to the basic fundamen- story­
telling theory — to satisfy the audience’s inherent
tal principles of color and design. Once he mastered the uni- rhythms and expectations. During Minutes 1 through 10 the
versal basics and applied them, it freed him to spend all his audience will need to experience Attension!, The Build, The
energy on creating original, and timeless, master­pieces. So it Ratchet, Another Notch, Jaw Dropper, Friend or Fist, Friend
can be with your stories. or Fist 2, Something Startling Happens, The Pursuit, The
Discussion, etc.

­— 14 —
How can a director use Beat by Beat? Does Beat by Beat work in foreign films too? Don’t the cul-
A director can use the minute-by-minute beats as a checklist tural differences affect the beats?
while working with a writer, developing storyboards with an The beats described in this book apply to all successful films,
artist, or on set while working with the director of photogra- no matter which country they are developed in. Though some
phy. A director can also use the phrases in this book as verbal of the themes and political concerns may vary from culture to
shorthand when discussing a story with a producer, actor, or culture, the story rhythms are universal and are at the founda-
director of photography. tion of every good movie. Even though the Japanese culture,
for example, may be distinctly different from the American,
How can a producer use Beat by Beat? Italian, German, or French cultures, their movie storytelling
If a producer finds a script he likes, but feels there’s something techniques, at the core, still use the exact same beats.
missing in its storytelling, the producer can use Beat by Beat
to diagnose what’s missing. The producer can also refer to this I don’t understand: How can a romantic comedy be the
book while working with a director to assure his movie is hit- same as a horror movie?
ting all the same rhythms that all successful movies are utilizing. Movies are strikingly similar to architecture. Just as a roman-
tic villa built in a sunflower meadow in Tuscany looks wildly
How can an editor use Beat by Beat? different in appearance than an eerie Transylvania castle once
An editor can use the beats in this book as a minute-by-min- owned by Vlad the Impaler, the architectural principles upon
ute checklist while trimming down a movie. This guide will which those uniquely different buildings were designed and
be a tremendous benefit and time-saver in finding any movie’s constructed are exactly the same. So it is with movie stories.
story rhythm.
Can I use Beat by Beat to write a novel?
How can an actor use Beat by Beat? Novelists have the luxury of exploring and expanding upon
Actors are the visual conduit for expressing the all-important the inner workings of their characters, and the ability to allow
minute-by-minute story rhythms to the audience. If an actor page upon page of bountiful description. Despite this literary
fails to touch upon each minute’s specific rhythm or bench- freedom, however, their main function is to tell a good story.
mark, than the director and audience will feel something Since Beat by Beat lays out the consecutive beats of successful
is lacking in his performance. An actor who has the beats storytelling in movies, the novelist can borrow these beats as
described here in his arsenal will have a distinct subconscious a guide or checklist, especially if he or she wishes to eventu-
advantage over actors who don’t. ally develop their novel into a feature-length film.

­— 15 —
How do I break down movies minute-by-minute for myself? minute-by-minute for myself? (above) until these concepts
First, rent the movie you wish to analyze. Grab a stopwatch become crystal clear in your mind. Just like any skill, you
and click it on until it reaches 1:00 (1 minute), then stop it have to master the basics and then practice them until they
there. Okay, begin the movie. Now, when you restart your become second nature.
stopwatch is crucial. Don’t click on your stopwatch as soon
as the credits begin. Start when the story begins. How do you Can Beat by Beat be used for graphic novels?
know when the story begins? It’s where the screenwriter most The beats described in this book would be ideal for the visual
likely began writing the movie after typing FADE IN. Don’t medium of graphic novels, especially if the writer pens the
start when the credits are running, unless the credits are story between 70 to 120 pages. In such a case, the min-
shown while the story is unfolding (like in Raiders of the Lost ute-by-minute beats could be applied page by page, much like
Ark). Also be on the lookout for what I call “James Bond cred- a film script.
its,” meaning credits that appear after the big movie opening.
Click your stopwatch off during the James Bond credits and Can development executives, managers, or agents use this
music, unless of course they’re part of the story. Use this book book?
as a guide as you stop and start each minute, jotting down Although there are many astute agents, managers, and devel-
your own insights. opment execs in the business, some still struggle to explain
exactly what is wrong with a particular script to their clients.
Sometimes when I break down movies, as suggested in your While some executives, managers, and agents demonstrate
book, the movie I’m studying doesn’t show your beats. Why adequate skill at explaining character arc or the requirements
is this? of a three-act structure, they can still find it difficult to trou-
Successful movies adhere strictly to the minute-by-minute bleshoot those numerous pages between major plot points.
beats, as demonstrated over and over in this book. On rare That’s where this book comes in handy: It explores, in depth,
occasions the beats are slightly early or late (usually within all those in-between pages! For example, if you feel your
five to twenty seconds), but the point is: The beats are there, client’s script is lagging during pages 51–59, you can flip to
or in the vicinity. If finding the beats is difficult for you, try Minutes 51–59 in this book to see exactly what needs to hap-
reviewing Step 2 in Four Things You Need to Know Before pen during those pages.
Reading This Book, and re-read How do I break down movies

­— 16 —
1 MINUTE = During the early 1900s silent movie era, writers typed simple producers to package and pitch them film ideas. This led to
1 S C R E E N P L AY scene headings and action descriptions for directors. Then writers creating more “readable” scripts for investors, leaving
PA G E came along Thomas Ince, founder of Hollywood’s first major out technical jargon. This approach evolved the screenplay
studio facility, who — for efficiency — decided to add interi- into the modern format known as the Master Scene Script,
ors, exteriors, and camera angle descriptions. These screen- which includes scene headings, action, characters, parenthet-
plays were typewritten with specific margins, giving Ince an icals, dialogue, and transitions.
idea of how long a movie would be. Therefore, one script page You can Google “movie script PDFs” to view examples,
equaled approximately one minute of screen time. or you can buy a computer program which mimics the spac-
By the mid-50s, the powerful studios switched their ing and type of this popular format. I use Final Draft.
focus to marketing and distributing movies, relying more on

TO P 1 0 M OV I E NOTE: To simplify the reading experience, I usually refer to this particular story, Tony Stark is the Main Hero because he
ARCHETYPES the Main Hero with masculine pronouns, but the Hero can, of undergoes the most extreme arc: selfishness to selflessness.
course, be female. The Main Hero is also the person who, toward the end of the
movie, sacrifices his flaw for the good of others — a noble act
Here are the classic Jungian archetypes I see most often in he suffers for, but is also rewarded for. Tony Stark overcomes
successful movies, with one of my own included. They are: his flaw of selfishness by undertaking a suicide mission for
Main Hero, Sidekick, Maiden, Wise Old Man, Villain, the good of mankind, but in doing so he experiences pain
Henchman, Shape-shifter, Trickster, Eternal Child, and when he topples violently back to earth. But for doing so,
Mother Figure. Stark is rewarded with the other Avengers’ deep respect.
The Main Hero is also orphaned in some way. Either he’s
MAIN HERO a literal orphan, where one or both parents are dead, or he
There can be many heroes in a movie story, so how do you is emotionally or physically distant from his mother and/or
know which is your Main Hero? The Main Hero experiences father. Why are orphans so effective in storytelling? Because
the most extreme transformation. In The Avengers, Captain being an orphan is an instant way to draw sympathy from
America, Tony Stark, Black Widow, Thor, and Bruce Banner your audience. Why? Because we’ve all felt alone in the world
all share heroic moments. So who’s the Main Hero then? In at some point in our lives. I felt alone in the world when I

­— 17 —
drove across the United States by myself to pursue my dreams VILLAIN
of writing in Los Angeles, a city where I knew no one. Soon, The Villain is the main bad guy, but it’s key to understand that
however, I found Sidekicks, Wise Old Men, Mother Figures, the Villain doesn’t see himself as the bad guy. He sees himself
and Maidens to help me navigate my way through all the as the Hero. He is the Main Hero’s primary opponent who
Shape-shifters, Tricksters, Henchmen, and Villains I would will draw out, expose, and test the Main Hero’s flaw.
encounter during my quest.
HENCHMAN
SIDEKICK (ALLY) The Henchman is the Villain’s right-hand man. The
The Sidekick (or Ally) is the Main Hero’s buddy, pal, or con- Henchman is a skilled and formidable foe who stands
fidant. He (she) is there to lend an ear, advice, support, and between the Main Hero and the Villain. The Main Hero must
to challenge the Main Hero’s flaw. He is the Samwise Gamgee defeat the Henchman to get to the Villain.
to Frodo in Lord of the Rings, or Margo to Nick in Gone Girl.
Using Sidekicks is also a trick screenwriters use to show what SHAPE-SHIFTER
the Main Hero is thinking through dialogue, as opposed to An obvious Shape-shifter is someone like Bruce Banner who
novels where we read the character’s thoughts. Sidekicks help physically transforms into the Hulk. But the Shape-shifter
the screenwriter avoid relying too heavily on narration. is also someone who may seem good at the beginning but
reveals himself to be bad, like Carl in Ghost who betrays his
MAIDEN best friend Sam (Patrick Swayze). Or the Shape-shifter may
The Maiden is the Hero’s love interest, or the Maiden can be a seem bad, like Old Man Marley in Home Alone, but in the
female who represents innocence, purity, or naiveté. end he saves young Kevin’s life. The Shape-shifter’s loyalties
are often unclear; he will often change his personality or alle-
WISE OLD MAN giance in extreme ways.
The Wise Old Man is someone older than the hero who
offers wisdom or guidance: a mentor. He is the Obi-Wan or TRICKSTER
Yoda to Luke Skywalker, or Dumbledore to Harry Potter, or The Trickster is mischievousness personified. He likes to
Mister Miyagi to Daniel in Karate Kid. Sometimes Wise Old mock and crack cunning jokes. He’s the comic relief whose
Man can be a false Wise Old Man, like Lamar Burgess, John loyalties can sometimes be in question. He’s a smartass. He
Anderton’s boss and mentor in Minority Report, who turns is Han Solo in Star Wars, or the Joker in Batman, or Captain
out to be (Spoiler Alert!) the killer. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.

­— 18 —
Main Hero Sidekick Maiden Wise Old Man Villian Henchman Shape-Shifter Trickster Eternal Child Mother Figure

Skyfall

The Avengers

JARVIS

The Hangover

A Beautiful
Mind

The Conjuring

Gone Girl

­— 19 —
ETERNAL CHILD Most successful movies use a minimum of eight of these
The Eternal Child can be a literal child, or he can be an adult archetypes, as seen in the chart on page 19 featuring our case
who is childlike. Forrest Gump is a perfect example, or Frodo study blockbusters. Some characters can also occupy two
or Harry Potter. They represent innocence and provide hope archetypes in the same film.
through their childlike wisdom. To create great twists in your story, try the unexpected
with your archetypes. No one would expect the Wise Old
MOTHER FIGURE Man to be a serial killer, or the Main Hero’s Sidekick, Maiden,
The Mother Figure is nurturing and caring. She can be tem- or Mother Figure to be a traitor, or the Henchman to betray
peramental and volatile as well, like M to James Bond, or the Villain. You can create shocking moments by flipping the
Galadrial in Lord of the Rings. audience’s expectations of the archetypes.

ESSENTIAL THEME
ELEMENTS Theme is what your movie is really about. It’s the clothesline
you hang all your scenes and dialogue on. The best movie for
theme in this book is Skyfall. The theme is: Old Ways versus
the New Ways. The movie explores different shades of this
theme: Aging Bond has “lost a step;” Mallory wants aging M
to retire; Young Q still “has spots” as Bond points out and can
kill people with one computer keystroke; Silva, who’s Bond’s
age, uses new technology to try to rule the world. Skyfall’s Q and Bond explore Skyfall’s theme: Old Ways vs. the New Ways

scenes and dialogue are rich with this theme, which adds a
depth uncommon in most action movies. wisdom, tied to the theme, that makes them better human
When we finish watching Skyfall this thought crosses beings. Even after viewing a movie with a tragic ending, we
our minds: Sometimes the old ways are best. The audience should learn something positive that makes the experience
or readers of your screenplay should always walk away hav- worthwhile.
ing learned a one-line sentence from your story — a bit of

­— 20 —
happen in order to expose and test the hero’s flaw in hopes
the experience makes him a better person.

THE PERFECT ARC


The best character arcs are the ones where the Main Hero
goes through a 180-degree turnaround. For example: Hate
to Love, Selfishness to Selflessness, or Hopelessness to Hope.
The more extreme your Main Hero’s arc, the better the ride
In The Hangover, Phil allows himself to be bullied — his flaw
for your audience.
HERO’S FLAW
The Flaw is what your Main Hero struggles to overcome
throughout the entire movie. He or she is clueless of this flaw BULLIED
at the beginning but an Inciting Incident and an adventure
come along that will expose and test this flaw. In a happy end-
ing, the hero overcomes his flaw and is rewarded because of
it. In a tragedy, the Main Hero fails to overcome his flaw, but
we learn from his mistakes.
A flaw can be selfishness, anger, unforgiveness, hatred,
addiction, etc. Examine your own life. What’s the flaw that
you are unaware you have, or you’re in denial about? What’s NOT BULLIED
that flaw that’s holding you back from being a better human
being? What’s the flaw that life keeps hammering at and
exposing until you finally learn to overcome it? What’s that
flaw that — if you don’t overcome it — people will view as a
tragedy when you are dead?
The flaw is tied to the theme. In fact, your whole story
is about whether the hero will overcome his flaw or not.
Yes, there may be action scenes, thrills, drama, and horror At the beginning of The Hangover, Phil allows himself to be bullied by his
fiancé Melissa. In the end, however, Phil refuses to be bullied by Melissa and
happening all around your hero, but those events in a story breaks up with her — his 180-degree arc.

­— 21 —
PURPOSE OF A SCENE tension in your scene (as if you were writing a silent movie),
A scene is one step forward in your hero’s trek toward con- then you may insert dialogue to advance the story.
fronting his flaw. A scene reveals something new and signif- And in that dialogue you must express what each of the
icant about your hero or the other archetypes, either through archetypal characters would truthfully say in that particular
action or dialogue. A scene reflects the theme in some way. A situation. Their words must sound fresh and original, devoid
scene shows conflict, opposition, or tension. Most scenes can of clichés. Each of the characters must speak genuinely in
be anywhere from an eighth-of-a-page to five pages. A good accordance to their unique personalities, diverse upbring-
scene doesn’t meander or linger: It enters the drama as late ings, educational backgrounds, regional cadences, ages, IQs,
as possible and exits as early as possible. A scene that lacks worldviews, and philosophies.
friction or tension, or fails to address the theme in some way, Dialogue must not be “on the nose” (characters saying
must be cut. precisely what they mean) unless absolutely necessary. Your
dialogue must utilize the power of subtext instead, meaning:
PURPOSE OF DIALOGUE The characters say one thing but think another. A classic exam-
“When we tell a story in cinema,” Hitchcock once advised ple of subtext is in The Godfather when Don Corleone tells his
Francois Truffaut, “we should resort to dialogue only when godson, Johnny: “We’ll make him (the Hollywood producer)
it’s impossible to do otherwise.” In other words, after you’ve an offer he can’t refuse.” Subtext: We’ll threaten his life.
exhausted every conceivable way to cleverly show conflict and

4 -AC T I use a four-act structure simply because the act breaks for the Act 1
STRUCTURE three-act structure always seem clumsy to me: Act 1, Act 2a, The Main Hero goes about his usual business with his side-
Act 2b, Act 3. I’m not a fan of the “a” and “b” thing. The four- kick, oblivious of his flaw. Suddenly, an incident occurs that
act structure makes more sense to me and many other pro will force him to eventually deal with that flaw. But since he
screenwriters: Act 1 (pages 1 to 30), Act 2 (pages 31 to 60ish), doesn’t want to face his flaw, or is in denial about it, he refuses
Act 3 (61 to 85ish), Act 4 (86ish to 120ish). to confront what the incident presented to him. Eventually
If I were to sum up the four-act structure into a simple he . . .
story, it would go like this:

­— 22 —
Here’s how I break down the four acts (using Skyfall as an example):

ACT 1 ACT 2 ACT 3 ACT 4


pages 1­–30 pages 31–60ish pages 61–85ish pages 86ish–120ish

Setup The Quest’s Escalating Complications Death Valley Resolution


Bond may be too old to kill the villian. Bond’s aging body gives out while Villian is going to kill Bond Bond kills the villain.
trying to find the villian. and the girl.

Act 2 him from exiting the cave. In fact, the Main Hero reaches the
. . . embarks on a quest that forces him to enter a “dark cave.” lowest point he’s ever experienced. Realizing that his only
The Main Hero, with the help of his Sidekicks, Maiden, Wise hope of getting out of the cave is to overcome his flaw and to
Old Man and Mother Figure, battles the Henchman, Shape- face the Villain directly, the Main Hero prepares himself for
shifter, and Villain in this strange dark cave (who all chal- battle. He then marches toward the Villain for a final, winner-
lenge his flaw). Obstacles grow more difficult and complica- take-all brawl.
tions escalate the deeper the Main Hero goes into the cave.
It’s at this point the Main Hero either sees a (false) light at the Act 4
far end of the cave, or the cave collapses in front of him on The Main Hero sacrifices his flaw completely on this final
his way toward the light. This collapse forces the Main Hero quest and suffers great pain because of it, but in doing so he
to find another way out. defeats the Villain and finds a way out of the cave. Stepping
into the sunlight, the Main Hero is rewarded with a new and
Act 3 better life. (Or, if he doesn’t overcome his flaw, he is defeated
The Main Hero then experiences the darkest moments of his and we, as an audience, learn from his failure.)
entire life as he continues to fight the Villain who prevents

­— 23 —
TURNING POINTS Now that you’ve learned about the four-act structure, it’s hero to unravel or resolve. This is a longtime secret trick of
time to add Turning Points to your skill set. Turning Points playwrights and screenwriters to extend any story.
are events that send the hero, and the story, into a dramat- The timeline below shows you when the Turning Points
ically different direction. A Turning Point happens on or happen within the acts, which I will elaborate on when you
near Minute 17 in Act One. Additional Turning Points occur reach that Minute in the book. The Inciting Incident, The
in Acts 2 and 3 every fifteen minutes to keep the audience Quest, Midpoint, and Final Quest are Turning Points, too, but
off guard, engaged, and guessing (Minutes 45, 60, and 75). they have their own special set of requirements, which I will
Turning Points are also used during Minutes 90, 105, and 120 also explain in more detail when you reach those Minutes.
if you need to extend your story. Note: Check out the ultimate cheat sheet on pages
In fact, if you want to expand your story indefinitely, 292–293 . . . the entire Beat by Beat structure summarized in
simply add a big Turning Point every fifteen minutes after a detailed timeline.
Minute 120 — a Turning Point that will be difficult for the

ACT 1 ACT 2 ACT 3 ACT 4


pages 1­–30 pages 31–60ish pages 61–85ish pages 86ish–120ish
Setup The Quest’s Escalating Complications Death Valley Resolution
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­— 24 —
AC T 1
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­— 25 —